Died At Age: 41
Also Known As: Lady Murasaki
Born Country: Japan
Born in: Kyoto
Famous as: Novelist
Spouse/Ex-: Fujiwara no Nobutaka
father: Fujiwara no Tametoki
Died on: 1014
place of death: Kyoto
discoveries/inventions: Psychological Novel
Murasaki Shikibu was a renowned Japanese author, poet, and lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court during the Heian era in Japan. She is considered to be the first novelist in the world and wrote the famous "The Tale of Genji," which was widely popular in its time and is still regarded as one of the most significant works in Japanese literature. She was a force to reckon with because women weren't considered “intelligent people” in the era she lived in. She overcame numerous social restrictions to emerge as a pioneer who helped shape the Japanese language. “Murasaki Shikibu” is an assumed name as her real name is not known. She has been called Murasaki based on the heroine of her novel, while “Shikibu” is a name adapted from her father’s rank. She was a gifted child and learned Chinese quickly. Back then, not many girls were taught the language. As a young woman, she was requested to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi at the Imperial court because of her status as a writer. She served as a companion and tutor to the empress.
Childhood & Early Life
Murasaki Shikibu was born in 973 or 978 AD in Heian-kyo, which is modern-day Kyoto in Japan. Born into the Fujiwara family, she had Fujiwara no Yoshifusa, the first 9th-century Fujiwara statesman, as an ancestor.
To seize political power and control court politics, the Fujiwara family often married their daughters to emperors and members of the imperial family.
Her paternal great-grandfather and grandfather were both acclaimed poets and were admired in the artistic community.
Her father was Fujiwara no Tametoki, a famed scholar of Chinese classics and poetry. He was an official and became a governor in 996 AD. Her mother was also a descendant of the Fujiwara clan, and together they had three children, two daughters and a son. Her mother is assumed to have died during childbirth.
During the Heian era in Japan, husbands and wives lived in different houses and children resided with their mothers. However, Murasaki was different as she lived in her father's house with her younger brother Nobunori, perhaps on Teramachi Street in Kyoto.
In the Heian culture, traditionally only the males were taught Chinese. However, since she lived with her father, she learned and became adept in classical Chinese. She learned by listening to her brother learn the classics as he was being groomed for public service.
She mentioned in her diary that her father often lamented about her not being born a man, as he could see her immense talent. She received a more formal education in subjects like music, Japanese poetry, and calligraphy, which were deemed fit for a woman.
Thomas Inge, an Asian literature scholar, notes that she was perceived to have "a forceful personality that seldom won her friends."
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Murasaki lived unconventionally and followed an unorthodox lifestyle. She was an intelligent woman armed with knowledge and proper education. Her biographical poem reflects she was a budding author, and she often exchanged her poems with other women but never with men.
After the death of her husband Nobutaka, she had attendants to run the household and care for her daughter, providing her with ample time to focus on writing. Many experts believe that she began writing 'The Tale of Genji' before her husband passed away.
One of the excerpts from her diary reads, "I felt depressed and confused. For some years, I had existed from day to day in listless fashion...doing little more than registering the passage of time ... The thought of my continuing loneliness was quite unbearable".
She was introduced to Shōshi's court in about 1005 AD as a lady-in-waiting. Because of her proficiency in Chinese, she taught Empress Shōshi lessons in Chinese classics, art, and ballads.
Her most famous work is the novel 'The Tale of Genji.' Other than that, she also wrote 'The Diary of Lady Murasaki' and 'Poetic Memoirs,' which is a collection of 128 poems.
Her works played a significant role in shaping Japanese literature because her writing reflected the inception and evolution of Japanese writing from unscripted vernacular to a written language.
Historian Edwin Reischauer states that genres like the 'Monogatari' were noticeably in Japanese and that Genji, which was written in kana, "was the outstanding work of the period."
She was referred to as "The Lady of the Chronicles" for teaching Shōshi Chinese literature by a scorned lady-in-waiting who accused her of flaunting her fluency in Chinese. The nickname was meant to be derogatory, but Japanese writer Mulhern remarks that she was flattered by it.
'The Tale of Genji' is a three-part novel extending to 1100 pages. It consists of 54 chapters that took her almost a decade to finish. American translator Helen McCullough states that this novel "transcends both its genre and age."
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Mulhern describes 'Poetic Memoirs' to be "arranged in a biographical sequence." She wrote love poems, and they included details of her life like the death of her sister and travels with her father. Her selected works were also included in the imperial anthology 'New Collections of Ancient and Modern Times.'
Family & Personal Life
Murasaki married her father's friend Fujiwara no Nobutaka after her return from Echizen Province to Kyoto. He was an administrative official at the Ministry of Ceremonials.
Together they had a daughter, Kenshi (Kataiko), who was born in 999 AD. She eventually became a well-renowned poet under the name Daini no Sanmi. Her husband died of cholera two years after their daughter was born.
Scholars have different opinions on the state of her marriage. Richard Bowring suggests she had a happy marriage while Japanese literature scholar Haruo Shirane says that her poems indicated resentment towards her husband.
Murasaki's autobiographical poetry portrays that her interactions were restricted to only women, her father, and brother. She lived in her father's house until her mid-twenties or thirties, unlike other women who got married when they reached adolescence.
Court life was unappealing to her, and she remained unsociable and earnest. None of the records talk of her participation in competitions or salons. She only exchanged poems or letters with a few other women.
She wasn't keen about the men in court, but scholars like Waley have said that she was in a romantic relationship with Michinaga. Her diary mentions their dalliance as late as 1010 AD.
There are differing opinions about her final years. Murasaki is believed to have moved to the Fujiwara manor in Biwa with Shōshi when she retired from the Imperial palace around 1013 AD. George Aston states that she went to 'Ishiyama-dera' after retirement.
Details of her death are also subject to speculations. Murasaki may have died in 1014. Shirane says she died in 1014 AD when she was 41 years old. Bowring mentions she may have lived until 1025 AD.